Federal jurist ruffles some feathers of colleagues, but his honesty is refreshing.
Federal judges rarely make headlines, and they usually like it that way.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said judges belong in the tall grass, away from the public eye — though Scalia himself leaves that terrain behind when he has a book to promote or a feud to settle.
Still, it was unusual when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf, who sits in Lincoln, Neb., launched a blog in 2013 offering his candid views on the role of federal judges. Rarer still when, on July 5 of this year, Kopf wrote on that blog that the U.S. Supreme Court, after issuing numerous controversial rulings in recent years, should step back and "STFU."
Kopf's use of a caustic modern-day acronym for keeping quiet got a lot of attention. Prudish commentators said judges shouldn't say such things in public. Some suggested that Kopf should resign from his status as a senior judge.
Yes, Kopf could have picked a more subtle way of making his point. But it is refreshing to see federal judges emerge from the shadows and demystify what they do. His comments contribute to a timely debate over the role of the nation's highest court. Especially now, when the public demands maximum transparency from its institutions, the judiciary should not hide behind its tradition of lofty invisibility.
Kopf is not the first federal judge to express opinions off the bench.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was a prominent conservationist while he was on the bench. Sixty years ago, his highly public hike along the entire 185-mile length of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal kept it from being turned into a highway.
Chicago-based federal appeals Judge Richard Posner has opined about everything from sex and marijuana to the 2000 presidential election during his 32 years on the bench, and his courthouse has not crumbled.
As for Judge Kopf, he was chastened by the criticism, and stopped blogging for a while to decide whether he should continue. On July 11, he announced — on his blog — that he will keep speaking out.
"I care deeply about federal judicial transparency," Kopf wrote. "In these polarized times, why should anyone trust us if we judges, particularly federal judges, are not utterly open to examining our motivations and mistakes before the public for whom we serve? Law is not politics, but that assertion now requires proof, not mere belief."
That in itself is a valuable comment that makes Kopf's a voice worth listening to — hopefully for many years to come.
Tony Mauro is Supreme Court correspondent for The National Law Journal and the Supreme Court Brief. He is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.
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